Robert S. McNamara Rest in... Well, Maybe Just Stay Dead

It's a little hard to have a neutral opinion of Robert Strange McNamara if you're of a certain age. President of Ford Motor Company and a quantifying "Whiz Kid," he was appointed Secretary of Defense by John F. Kennedy, where he shortly showed what a Secretary of Defense should neither be nor do.

I say business for a reason, as McNamara seemed to regard mankind's bloodiest enterprise as a bloodless, emotionless, soulless exercise in numbers. An architect of the Vietnam War, he was a proponent of using metrics such as the body count to measure progress and outcomes.

I will admit that I am not an admirer. In fact I'll brag about it.

One can't wage war as though it was a matter of selling cars; war is not that neat. It is messy, filthy, and emotional; at the lowest levels soldiers do not think of the numbers, and at the highest national will can be a lot more difficult to quantify than McNamara could neither know nor admit. There was no room in McNamara's awareness for the single-mindedness of a Ho Chi Minh, who didn't give a damn about what the numbers said.

Screw the statistics, he just wanted to win.

I view McNamara as one of the villains of American history, a misguided fool who dressed some of the government's dumbest ideas in an intellectual, logical dignity.

In their obituary, MSNBC.com gives attention to his post-Defense roles, as head of the World Bank and advocate of nuclear disarmament and the transfer of wealth from the world's richest nations to the world's poorest. It even dignifies him with a description as "a global elder statesman."

CNN's online obituary damns with faint praise, basically cutting off at his departure from government, summing up his later career with the words, "After leaving the Pentagon in early 1968, McNamara spent 12 years leading the World Bank."

A particularly negative commentary comes from Joe Galloway, veteran journalist and co-author of We Were Soldiers Once... And Young. Galloway's article begins with a quote from Clarence Darrow: "I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure." From there, he goes to state that "Well, the aptly named Robert Strange McNamara has finally shuffled off to join LBJ and Dick Nixon in the 7th level of Hell."

McNamara, to my mind, might deserve the fifth level of hell, so perhaps Galloway overstated things just a bit. Still, "global elder statesmen" is a title that sticks in my throat; at best McNamara was trying to make up for previous bad acts, kind of like a compulsive computer criminal who becomes an advocate for better cybersecurity.

Not that Robert S. McNamara was an actual criminal; his intentions might have even been good. But isn't that how the roads to all levels of hell are paved?

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Comment by Bill Wood on July 8, 2009 at 8:28am
We shall disagree - Rumsfeld was a bad guy, all around. He too crunched numbers, practiced the gringo, and willingly risked the lives of others for his own personal ambition.
Comment by Jon Compton on July 8, 2009 at 8:17am
Can't say I agree with that. Whatever Rummy's shortcomings (and there are many), I think he was a fine Secretary of War; but not a particularly good Secretary of Defense. I think the virtues and shortcomings of the two men have little overlap, at least philosophically.
Comment by Bill Wood on July 8, 2009 at 7:29am
...and his 'clone', Rumsfeld, made it worse. Really, ever notice how much the two looked alike and acted the same?
Comment by Jon Compton on July 8, 2009 at 6:48am
I agree entirely but for the single point that I do believe he had a lasting and positive impact on defense procurement processes that eliminated a fair amount of redundancy and largely redefined the role of the secdef where procurement is concerned. Otherwise, he is the poster-boy for modern fools who reject quantitative analysis because of the ridiculous perception that those who use it think it is the answer to all questions. He single-handedly set back the "science" in political science by decades.
Comment by Lance Runolfsson on July 8, 2009 at 1:48am
Excellent piece of writing Jim!!!!!!!

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